Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji was born in Garamsir (located in modern-day Dasht-i-Marg) in Central Afghanistan, into the tribe of Khalaj in Khaljistan. Although little is known about his early life, according to his biographers, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji was a brave and ambitious young man. Short in height and of slim build, with unusually long arms, he wanted to become a soldier. He proceeded to Ghazni in order to join the army of Muhammad Ghuri, but was not recruited due to his short height and long arms. He then travelled to Delhi to serve Qutb al-Din Aybak (who served as a commander of Muhammad Ghuri, then became a ruler in Lahore after the latter’s death in 602). Again he was unable to secure permanent employment.
He then proceeded to Badayun in Northern India where, at last, he was able to join the service of Malik Hizbar al-Din as a low-ranking army officer. He subsequently quit this job and moved to Oudh. Malik Husam al-Din, the governor of this province, was impressed with Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji and offered him a sizable plot of land in Mirzapur District (located in the present-day Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). He settled there and began to consolidate his political position. Having worked as a soldier and military strategist, he soon ousted his opponents and became the undisputed ruler of the neighbouring territories.
The End of Buddhist Monks AD 1193 depicted in Hutchinson’s Story of Nations, p. 168.
Between 1203 and 1205 he marched towards the east and annexed the province of Bihar (then known as Magadha) and added this territory to his expanding state. It is factually inaccurate to suggest that he destroyed many ancient seats of learning at Nalanda and Vikramshila before instigating a wholesale massacre of innocent people upon entering that territory; the opposite is true.. The capture of Bihar greatly enhanced the Muslim general’s standing and the Viceroy Qutb al-Din Aybak publicly recognised and honoured him for his success.
From Bihar he moved into Lakhnawati (Bengal) and captured this large province. Bengal at the time was under the rule of the members of the Sena dynasty, who hailed from the south of India and their mother tongue was Kanarese. Very little is known about Samantasena, the founder of the Sena dynasty, who most probably lived during the middle of the eleventh century. His descendants (such as Hemantasena and Vijaysena), established their rule across Bengal by ousting their rivals. After a long reign, Vijaysena was succeeded by his son, Vallalasena, who was a devotee of the Hindu god Shiva. Prior to the arrival of the Senas, the dominant religion of Bengal was Buddhism; but after assuming power they ruthlessly suppressed the Buddhists and forcibly imposed their rigid version of Brahmanic Hinduism on the locals. This creed required strict adherence to the caste system and the practice of Kulinism (a form of racialistic and cultural superiority).
By the time Laksmanasena became the ruler of the Sena dynasty, he was considered to be rather old and weak. Sensing the Sena’s vulnerability, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji advanced in the direction of Bengal and established Muslim rule for the first time in the history of Bengal. An underlying reason for this victory was the Sena’s failure to gain support from the ordinary people, both Hindus and Buddhists, who had not supported them fully from the outset. Since Bengal was ruled by a prominent native Buddhist Pala dynasty for many centuries, the Hindu Senas, who were Brahman Kshatriya (one of the highest Hindu castes), had failed to connect with the masses. Their hold on Bengal was also weakened by their strict adherence to the caste system, which led to social segregation. The Senas did not speak Bengali either; thus culturally, linguistically and spiritually they were alienated from the ordinary people. For this reason, the Vedic religion of the Aryans had never captured the imagination of the locals.
Unlike the Senas, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji quickly won over the non-Aryan people of the region; he even sponsored the construction of a monastery for the Buddhists. His open and welcoming approach enabled the indigenous people to interact with the Muslim newcomers from Arabia, Turkistan, Afghanistan and Persia during the early days of Muslim rule, and this fostered a culture of respect and mutual understanding in Bengal.
By all standards, the Muslim conquest of Bengal was a remarkable military feat, as it was achieved without any collateral damage. This has prompted many modern Hindu nationalists to play down the significance of this epoch-making event. Perhaps the idea of a heroic Muslim conqueror marching into the bastion of Brahmanic Hinduism, while its supposed patron and defender chose to flee for his life through the back door of his palace, is too disconcerting and humiliating for these nationalists to accept.
After the conquest of Nadia, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji stayed there to establish as many military outposts (thanas) as were necessary to enable him to administer the area properly before moving to Gaud (Lakhnawati), which was his political capital. From his original base in Mirzapur in Oudh (in southern Bihar), his dominion now extended to Rajmahal, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Dinajpur and Bogra in the north; and from the borders of the Kingdom of Kamrup in the east to as far as Jessore in the south. The considerable size of his dominion prompted him to devise and implement effective political administration throughout his territories. He did this by dividing his realm into different regions and districts. He then sent governors to those areas, who reported directly to him. Three of his chief governors were: Muhammad Shiran Khalji, who was put in charge of Lakhnur (Birbhum); Husam al-Din Iwad Khalji, who took charge of Tirhut, Oudh and the surrounding areas; and Ali Mardan Khalji, who was dispatched to an area close to modern Rangpur.
After creating an inclusive and effective political and administrative structure, he became a pioneer of Islamic thought, culture and civilisation in northern India in general and in Bengal in particular. After consolidating his rule in Bengal, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji planned another large-scale military expedition. Guided by Ali Mech and accompanied by ten thousand strong cavalry, the Muslim general left Deokot (located close to modern Dinajpur) early in 1206, and marched in the direction of Tibet.
At the borders of Tibet, the Muslim army and the Tibetans fought a fierce battle, which continued for some time. Unable to breach enemy defence, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji and his cavalry were forced to retreat. Attacked by the Tibetan forces from one direction and ambushed from the rear by the Kamrupis, he was forced to abandon his expedition. Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji’s failure to conquer Tibet was a major blow to his pride and prestige. On his return to his cantonment in Deokot, he fell seriously ill and subsequently died in 1206. If Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji’s expedition to Tibet had succeeded, the history of Islam in Asia in general and of the subcontinent in particular, might have been rather different. Even so, the successors of Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji continued their expeditions and in so doing they expanded their territories substantially.
The brave and indomitable Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji went onto carved out a vast dominion and inaugurated Islamic rule in a region that has remained Islamic to this day, in the form of Bangladesh, and his achievement and legacy has continued to inspire more than 200 million Bengali-speaking Muslims to this day.
By Muhammad Mojlum Khan, author of The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)
Featured Image (on the top):Mahmud of Ghazni crossing the Ganges, from the history of the Ghaznawids section in the Jami‛ al-Tawarikh of Rashid al-Din. <http://warfare.meximas.com/Persia/14/Jami_al-Tawarikh-Mahmud_of_Ghazni_crosses_the_Ganges.htm> [accessed 06/10/2015]